A $50 Pen Tablet – Too Good to be True?
I don’t think many people would argue that Wacom is the leader in the drawing tablet industry right now, with many professional photographers and graphic designers using tablets from their $200+ mid-level Intuos line as the staple for precise mouse work, and some even shelling out the thousands for the Cintiq line tablets with a built in screen display; so when I heard about a sub-$100 tablet with great reviews and competitive features, I had to try it out. Introducing the Monoprice “10×6.25 Inches Graphic Drawing Tablet w/ 8 Hot Key”!
Okay, so the name could use a bit of work, but at 62.5 square inches of touch surface area for just under $50, this tablet has more drawing room than other tablets at 7x the cost, and shares many similar features. The company that makes it, Monoprice, is a discount electronics retailer that brands many of it’s own competitive products – and while you’re not going to see the same build quality and attention to detail (think Yongnuo vs Canon), many including myself have found that this tablet offers a lot more than one would expect considering the price.
So, how is the build quality? It’s simple, but not bad. The tablet arrived in a nicely branded box with some information on the key features of the tablet, OS requirements, and general info.
Inside the box I found the tablet suspended on a white cardboard layout with the driver disc, pen, spare pen tips, AAA battery, and the pen holder. While this setup was a bit light on padding, the actual package they shipped it in had a very thick layer of air cushions surrounding the box and everything seemed to be in great condition. One thing that did surprise me, however is that the pen has no “eraser” on the back, which I’ve never seen before. I’m not sure if this is due to a patent by a competitor or just a cost thing, but for me it’s not a big deal as I don’t think I’ve ever actually used it with pens that did have one. I normally just use the keyboard shortcut for whatever tool I need. The holder that the pen sits in when you’re not using it is on a bit of a tilt and can easily be knocked over since the pen is fairly heavy with the battery in it as well, so that’s something to look out for (I’ll probably just swap it out with one of the circular Wacom ones).
The tablet itself seems to be made of the same plastics/materials as every other tablet I’ve ever seen. It says “made in China” on the back, but I think that’s to be expected of discount electronics. There are four rubber pads on the bottom corners to protect your desk surface, and 8 plastic buttons on the front that act as programmable shortcut keys, as well as some more touch sensitive shortcut areas on the top of the drawing area. Being a tablet, there’s not really much to mess up - the paint they use for the key functions and whatnot seems to be good quality, none of it came off when I tried scratching it with a dime so I imagine it will take a long time to fade.
In terms of features, I really appreciate the shortcut keys on the side which you can program to open any application, or webpage, or perform any function you want (cut, copy, save, etc.) though one issue I have is that they’ve already permanently labelled them to correspond with specific uses, which is kind of useless if you do want to change anything from default. There is also a list of applications running along the top of the drawing area that offer more shortcut possibilities that one can select with the pen which are also customizable within the settings menu.
So what about the drawing area itself? How’s the user experience? To start, here’s the spec list from the product page:
As I already mentioned, the drawing area is pretty good. I might even say perfect if you’re just using it for brushing in Photoshop, though designers may want a bit more room for precision. The resolution at 4000 LPI is about 1000 under the Intuos5 line. This is basically the amount of “fine movements” or spaces between each readable point on the tablet surface. I haven’t noticed any issues with precision brush movements despite this, though in a side by side comparison the Intuos5 is a bit more fluid. The report rate is exactly the same (that’s the amount of times per second that the tablet updates the data sent to your computer to show movement/touch). Again, this effects how “fluid” your cursor movement is as slower report rates would cause it to look jumpy. In the reviews, some other users have stated that they would appreciate more pen pressure levels. At 1024, this is only half of what the more expensive competitors offer and again this comes down to what you’re using it for and what kind of precision you need. The pressure levels affect things like brush size, transparency, etc depending on your settings. Lastly, the “reading height” at 10mm is the amount you can hover the pen above the surface while the tablet still measures your movement. This is a comfortable height for me, about the height that one would lift a pen tip above paper to move on to their next word when writing.
Just like other tablets the pen has two buttons located on the side which can perform the function of a left click, right click, double click, etc. based on your settings as well. The drivers included work with both Windows XP and later, and Mac OS X 10.4.11 and later, however there are some bonus applications that the website says won’t work with any Mac or Win 7 or later, they seem to be mostly plugin type things for programs like Word, Powerpoint, etc. that I can’t imagine most would get much use out of. Lastly, there’s a green LED on the top that flashes when you plug it in (USB 2.0) or touch the tablet with the pen. It has no other use or reason, it is just so you know the tablet is working.
So – is it worth the price? Absolutely, for $50 you might as well pick one up if for no other reason than as a backup or travel kit that you don’t have to worry about. The pens are about $10 to replace if you drop/break it, but like I mentioned they already include a bag of replacement plastic tips which seems to be the most vulnerable component. You won’t get the precision for fine details like you will from a $300 tablet, but for some this won’t matter – this has all of the features I’ll ever need and I can’t see any performance difference from when I work with an Intuos unit, while it may not cut it for designers, I’d imagine most photographers would agree. The company offers a 30 day money back guarantee with no restocking fee, and discount bulk pricing for any order with 2 to 50+.
They pack this thing up with a lot more features than one would expect, and the 90% positive reviews speak for themselves. This is a great tool whether you’re a hobbyist looking for an alternative to your laptop’s track pad, or a professional wanting to save some cash. It’s not going to offer you everything that the more expensive alternatives will, but the features you do get for the 700% price jump are minimal. Some of the included software seems rather useless and could use an update (as well as the shortcut button layout), but the drivers were easy to install, and the settings are incredibly straight forward to navigate and customize.
What I liked:
- Decent drawing area size
- Easy to install
- Tons of shortcut customize options
- Compatible w/ popular OS
- Solid build
- Includes basic replacement parts
What could use improvement:
- Pointless shortcut labels
- Could use more pressure levels
- Includes outdated software
If you’re interested in picking one up, you can buy it here.